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Feds tab Arizona public land with renewable potential

Solar panels at the Solana Generating Station near Gila Bend. (Cronkite News Service Photo by Jessica Testa)

PHOENIX -- The U.S. Interior Department has designated 192,100 acres of Arizona public land as having potential for large-scale wind and solar energy development.

"Arizona has huge potential when it comes to building a clean energy economy, and this landscape-level plan lays a solid foundation for making sure that it happens in the right way and in the right places," Interior Secretary Ken Salazar said in news release.

Friday's decision followed a three-year statewide environmental analysis of sites that could accommodate renewable energy development. The selected parcels are disturbed land, primarily used for agriculture, and also include land that the agency said was found to not have environmental or wildlife concerns.

The areas have access to transmission lines and load centers and are situated near urban areas with high electricity demand, said Kathy Pedrick, special assistant to the Bureau of Land Management's state director.

She said the announcement creates a "go-to map" for sustainable energy developers, though each proposal will undergo a site-specific environmental review.

"We analyzed what would be the impact of future development on these resources on these lands," Pedrick said. "Interested investors can look at our maps and analysis and identify areas that already have been shown for having less resource conflicts, or that are probably more suited for renewable energy development."

Sandy Bahr, director of Sierra Club's Grand Canyon chapter, welcomed the prospect of more solar and wind energy but said plans need to take the environment into account.

"In Arizona, we are blessed with a lot of public land that hosts a diversity of plants and animals," she said. "Some people think, ‘Look there's all that open space,' but we need to understand there is value in these lands, particularly the Sonoran Desert."

Bahr said she hopes the plan will highlight the importance and potential of renewable energy here.

"With more than 300 days of sunshine, Arizona is a good place for solar energy with some of the best solar resources in the country," she said. "It's good for our economy because there are jobs and revenues generated, and it's also a way to transition away from some of these dirty fossil fuels like coal."

Amanda Ormond, Southwest representative for the Interest Energy Alliance, said setting aside land for clean energy will benefit the state's economy and environment.

"From a development perspective, developing a project on federal land rather than private land is more time-consuming and costly, so steps like this project help speed up the process," Ormond said. "It's just one more step to clear a hurdle to help development for wind and solar."

Craig Cox, a Colorado-based clean energy public policy consultant, said he sees commercial and preservation interests working together to develop renewable energy on public lands.

"The resources are inexhaustible," he said. "It's domestic, American energy and we can harness it forever."

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